Five films into the franchise, Terminator: Genisys feels like a VHS cassette that's been rewound and recorded over for 21 years. Director Alan Taylor (of the unmemorable Thor: The Dark World) gives us images — a thumbs-up, an abandoned factory, a liquid-metal cop smashing through the windshield of a car — that cut through the CGI like scratches on the tape. Genisys is haunted by ghosts of old movies, a cyborg whose entire DNA is déjà vu.
Time is meaningless. Judgment Day has rained nuclear hellfire in 1997, 2003, or 2017, numbers intoned with the transient gravitas of Powerball winners. When Arnold Schwarzenegger says, "I'll be back," the line echoes in the brain. Is this 1984 or 1991 or 2015? Or have we stumbled into the alt-worlds of Total Recall, Last Action Hero, or Expendables 2, where he also grunted his catchphrase, or one of Arnie's gubernatorial stump speeches — from a period that now, four years after he left office, feels as fictional as his films? But at least Schwarzenegger's consistent. Sarah Connor has been played by two actors, Kyle Reese by three, and John Connor by four, and the screenwriting team's efforts to get all of the leads in the same room suggest the bittersweet exhaustion of a Van Halen tour. But, hey, can we really blame them? We're the ticket-buyers who keep rewarding Hagar and Schwarzenegger for parroting their greatest hits.
Genisys boots up in 2029, a generation after the robot rebellion, where scarred rebel leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads a final assault against Skynet. Those of you with flowcharts will recall that's the year when Connor sent his young foot soldier Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 to rescue and impregnate his mother, Sarah. "She's a waitress," explains Connor. Blurts Reese, "A what?"
We're on the other side of the time machine, watching a scene James Cameron figured was unnecessary. (Side-note: Wanna really feel old? 1984, the start of the Terminator series, is twice as many years away from the present as its post-Apocalypse.) But when Reese lands in punk Eighties L.A., he's greeted by one thing we expect: a young, naked Arnold, recapturing the physical perfection that first got him cast as a computer man, now with computer help — once, he was the special effect. And then comes one thing we aren't expecting, a warrior Sarah Connor who, in this timeline, has been waiting for his arrival since 1973. And, yeah, she already knows they've gotta mate like racehorses to save humankind.
This Sarah (Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke) has a sweet-looking candy-cartoon face, but the wrong kind of feminist spunk. She takes offense when Reese unlocks her handcuffs, when earlier iterations would have tersely nodded their thanks and grabbed a gun. Sarah looks Reese over and sighs, "You're not what I expected," as though this is a disappointing inter-dimensional blind date. Still, she's got a point — Courtney is a buffed-up, cuckoo-for-Crossfit version of Michael Biehn's original savior. That makes sense in a sequel where everything is supersized. Genisys is all bullets and bombs, action without pause, as though if the ride stops the whole thing will collapse under its own weight.
Genisys starts with a mystifying war montage where we can't decipher whether Reese and John Connor are in peril or showing off their highlight reel. Then it maintains that furious confusion. Everyone is shooting and punching, but no one knows how or why or even what year they should time-travel to next. Audiences will have seen five of these movies, and might be just as disoriented — whatever happened in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines seems to have never happened at all. Sorry, lady Terminatrix Kristanna Loken, you've been written over with a new death model, a human-Skynet hybrid made of liquid sand.
The T-3000 has a fragmented, gritty cool. I'm still partial to the shiny, stabby T-1000 with its limbs like razors and its face as blank as a fighting cock. Still, the most clever thing Taylor and the screenwriters have concocted is an excuse to rehire Arnie as-is, wrinkles and all. In this parallel universe, Sarah Connor has been palling around with his T-800 since the summer she turned nine. She calls him Pops, and his skin, it turns out, can age. Apparently, his sense of humor has also developed. When Reese strips naked again — no wonder Courtney felt pressured to hit the gym — Schwarzenegger gives the tiniest eye-flick south before he grunts he's "seen little to indicate" this future-dude is a good match for his daughter. Reese needles him with "I've never seen an old Terminator before," and Arnie counters with his new catchphrase: "I'm not old, I'm obsolete."
Of course, the whole motivation behind Genisys is to prove that nothing is obsolete: not 67-year-old movie stars, not 31-year-old sagas, and certainly not mankind's perpetual paranoia about the end of the world. (Although, with last week's news that scientists have concluded Earth has begun its sixth mass extinction — the fifth one was the dinosaurs — we probably don't need robots to kill the planet.)
"If there was another way, I would have taken it," says John Connor of his war against the machines. I have no doubt there is another way — and that screenwriters are rewinding the VHS tape for another sequel. (An end credits scene suggests as much.) When you've been narrowly saving the world for three decades, what's the rush? As John says to an underling, "What do we want?" "Time travel." "And when do we want it?" "Irrelevant."